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To the Infinity Pool and Beyond: Muscat

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Oman had always been on my optional list. If the opportunity arose I wouldn't have been averse to going but I didn't feel it was essential for me to see the country during my time on Earth. I had heard a few good things about Muscat but aside from that I had little awareness of the culture or the merits of the country. Possibly the most positive aspect of Oman in my mind was that it was an Arab nation in which one could be reasonably assured of security while still experiencing an authentic and ancient culture. Once we had decided to visit Dubai I wanted to maximize the value of the long flight by visiting a nearby place that might not merit the journey on its own. After considering other locations in the Emirates as well as Qatar, I settled on Oman. I figured we could spend a day and a half exploring Muscat and the other half day on a road trip inland to the town of Nizwa before returning to Dubai shortly before our flight back to Miami.

Our Etihad flight departed from Abu Dhabi, less than an hour's drive south of Dubai. Within fifteen minutes we were flying over Oman and the landscape had changed dramatically. The bland expanse of desert had vanished and all I could see was an endless expanse of dark brown mountainous ridges. On closer inspection I made out some narrow strings of buildings snaking through the valleys between the ridges. There must have been narrow rivers or some form of man made irrigation here because there were faint patches of greenery against the grim, rocky background. After twenty minutes of this we approached the shoreline of the Gulf of Oman where the ground flattened and there was denser urban development, although nothing remotely close to what we had seen in Dubai. Almost all the buildings I could see were two or three story constructions of similar design painted in shades of white and beige. The uniformity of these middle class homes is no accident as their design and color are closely regulated by the central government.

My brother Michael and his sons had arrived earlier than us and were already settled in the hotel. Muscat has one of the strangest layouts of any capital city that we have visited. There are several different districts scattered around a wide area along the coast and there is no clear central or downtown area. The districts are connected by stretches of highway and are not within walking distance. It was clear since we only had one full day in Muscat that we had to choose our base carefully as we would be spending most of our time in that area. We picked Mutrah as it is the oldest part of the city and has the most authentic souq. There was minimal Airbnb presence in Mutrah and hardly any hotels were listed on English language websites so we found a place in the adjacent district of Ruwi.

Our hotel was pleasant and clean but a far cry from our luxurious accommodation in Dubai. The apartment suites were spacious but very plain and neither of the gas stoves was functional. The friendly Indian staff was always ready to come up and get the stoves working but it was more trouble than it was worth. There was also a faint brackish odor that thankfully didn’t penetrate into the bedrooms.

The geology of the local area offered some insight into Muscat’s unusual layout. The highway appeared to have been blasted through a ridge of solid rock and the buildings on side streets looked as though they had been wedged into the spaces between outcrops. Oman’s mountainous landscape extended all the way to the coast and the ridges had limited the growth of the city. Muscat was actually a network of small towns that had been aggregated into one city and connected by highways.

We needed taxis to get anywhere and they weren’t as plentiful on the streets as they had been in Dubai. Fortunately we had the Careem app which worked quite well and was just as inexpensive as it had been in Dubai. Each Omani rial is pegged at two dollars and sixty cents, which meant that we had the somewhat disorienting experience of paying for some cab rides with less than a single unit of the local currency. For dinner Michael had picked a seafood restaurant close to the fish market in Mutrah. It was one of those places where you choose your own fish and the method of preparation. We put together a pretty good meal of crab and snapper which cost about the same as it would have at a similar restaurant in the United States. After dinner we walked alongside the harbor in the direction of the souq. Brightly glowing cruise ships cast distorted reflections on the gently rippled water. A solitary hilltop fort near the shoreline was illuminated in white, blue, and green.

We arrived at Mutrah Souq just a half hour before its purported nine o’clock closure but it showed no signs of winding down. Like the souqs in Dubai all the stalls were displaying dry goods like clothes, jewelry, and toys. The closest thing to food was the spice shops. Unlike Dubai, however, the network of narrow alleys was crowded with locals. Almost all the people we had seen in Dubai were tourists and expats but in Muscat we only saw Omanis. There was a scattering of tourists but not many, so it seemed that the vast quantity of bric-a-brac in the market was being bought by locals. There was almost nothing of interest to us, except possibly the Kuma caps worn by many of the men. I’m not sure why I didn’t buy one in the end. Perhaps I’ve become overly sensitive to accusations of cultural appropriation in America’s current outrage-driven public discourse.

After dinner we stopped off at a supermarket to buy food since we knew we'd have trouble finding a place to eat during the day as it was Ramadan. The Lulu Hypermarket was enormous and filled with shoppers. It looked just like a supermarket in Florida except when I looked closely at the meat section the cuts had labels like "Somali Beef Heart". The seafood section appeared to be a lot better than the typical American supermarket. We bought some deli meals, noodles, and fruit for breakfast and lunch for the next two days.

Our first stop on Saturday morning was the fish market. It was smaller than the one in Abu Dhabi but considerably more animated and the fish looked fresher. The tuna were particularly luminous, looking as though they had been pulled from the gulf just moments earlier. There were some unusual items like hammerhead sharks on display as well. There was a cleaning station where fishmongers were salvaging beautiful, plump roe sacs before discarding the rest of the innards.

There was a small fruit and vegetable market adjacent to the fish market but there was much less of interest here. Mike and Mei Ling bought peeled daikons with the plants still attached, which they consumed on the spot.

From the markets we walked along the seaside promenade in the direction of the Mutrah Fort. Along the way we passed the beautiful blue minaret and cupola of the Al Rasool Al A'dham mosque and then the souq we had visited the previous night.

The rocky hills around Mutrah are dotted with small forts built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century when they occupied the region. Most of these forts are in a state of ruin and closed to the public but the Mutrah Fort has been partially renovated and can be visited. The structure occupies an impressive position atop a rocky outcrop, bringing to mind Renaissance era adventure and romance. There was an interesting juxtaposition between the five hundred year old fort and the trappings of a modern city. We arrived at the base of the hill where a long, winding staircase provided access to the fort.

The fort was a rather basic affair without barracks or other living accoutrements, as it was primarily an observation post with a few defensive cannon. A mezzanine area had been filled with carrom boards on low tables. No one was playing and I wasn't sure if the boards had been placed there for a special event or to entertain visitors. We looked out over the sprawl of blocky white and brown buildings that packed all the available space between the barren ridges. The third world appearance of the city was a stark contrast to the ultramodern architecture and sleek villas of Dubai.

From the highest level of the fort we could see all of Mutrah and the harbor. There was a solitary piece of artillery here that had likely been installed in the mid nineteenth century, perhaps to defend against rebels from the interior of the country.

As fascinating as Mutrah looked from above, it wasn't very amenable to exploration on foot. It was quite hot and dusty in the mid-day sun and there wasn't much in the way of commercial activity outside of the souq. It was a rather drab residential area without small alleys or squares or anything of real interest to a pedestrian. Since we didn't have much on our schedule we broke our usual prohibition against museums for a brief stop at the Place & People Museum. It was formerly named Ghalya's Museum of Modern Art and there was still a room devoted to art at the end, but the majority of the complex was devoted to displays of Omani heritage including the rooms of a typical Omani home of the mid twentieth century. It was a pleasant enough place to cool off but we passed through in less than an hour without learning a great deal.

We returned to our hotel rooms to eat lunch as there were no restaurants open at all during Ramadan. Stocking up at the supermarket the night before had been a good decision. Afterwards we ventured out by taxi to visit Muscat's most prominent architectural sights. As in Dubai there was one major avenue extending through the length of the city, and it was similarly named after the former ruler who was considered the father of the country. Qaboos bin Said was the Sultan of Oman from 1970 until his death in 2020 and was responsible for the unification of Muscat with the restive interior tribes. He was also largely responsible for the modernization of the Oman although the country has clearly moved in a different direction from the neighboring United Arab Emirates. Oman has remained much more insular and has resisted immigration as well as Western influences on their culture. The Emirates has leveraged their foreign labor force and an embrace of Western concepts of luxury into an economy five times the size of Oman and the difference in wealth between the two countries is easily apparent. However, there are a few areas of Muscat which display Emirates-style extravagance. Our taxi took us west from Mutrah to the most modern area of the city and dropped us off at the Royal Opera House right off of Sultan Qaboos Street. The sultan was a devotee of classical music and ordered the construction of the opera house at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately we arrived just after the building was closed for the day but the exterior was quite impressive in itself. Every surface was clad in pristine, locally quarried Desert Beige marble. The expansive patio was so scrupulously polished we could see our reflections in its surface. The main building was terraced in the classical style of an Omani mansion and was surrounded by porticoes that were fenestrated with Islamic archways.

There was a small shopping arcade attached to the opera house that was still open, although it seemed to be completely deserted and the luxury brand outlets inside were all closed. On the upper level we found the seating area for a coffee shop with beautifully upholstered salmon and teal chairs. The coffee shop itself was closed but I could imagine wealthy Omani wives taking a break here from their shopping exploits on any day outside of Ramadan.

A few miles further down Sultan Qaboos Street was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This was not a historic structure, having been completed just twenty years earlier, but it is considered remarkable for its size and its interior decoration. As with the mosques in Dubai, this one was quite beautiful from the outside with respect to its symmetry and flawlessness but it felt isolated and disconnected from the surrounding city. I much preferred the antiquated but equally beautiful mosques of Istanbul that were integrated into the surrounding colorful neighborhoods. The mosque is typically open to non-Muslims but my research indicated this would not be the case on Ramadan. As we approached the main entrance we did see a Western woman dressed very conservatively with a full headscarf as she was exiting, but the security guard denied us entrance. He promised if we returned the next morning we would be able to get in. I didn't press the issue as I'm not typically interested in the extravagant interiors of religious buildings, but it would have been nice to see the more renowned features such as the gigantic central chandelier or the vast handwoven carpet that covers the floor of the main prayer hall. Between the mosque and the main road there were orderly rows of rather distressed-looking bushes in arid soil. Across the road was the distinguished building of the Supreme Court Of Oman.

As if to rub in our rejection by mosque security, we had absolutely nothing left to see in the city and two hours until the restaurants opened at sunset. This wasn't from any paucity of research. Pretty much every guide to Muscat recommends visiting Mutrah for the souq and the fort, the opera house, and the Sultan Qaboos mosque. The other attractions are dry historical museums or out-of-town natural sights like the Bimmah Sinkhole. This was a marked contrast to Dubai where we moved nonstop from one activity to another and still couldn't see everything on our list in seven days. Muscat is not developed for tourism and doesn't have much in the way of walkable neighborhoods to explore. I was glad to have seen the city but I was grateful that we had only scheduled one day there. With no good alternatives we decided to head to the nearest mall, a choice we'd had decent success with in Dubai. The Mall of Oman was comparable to American malls and a pale comparison to the Dubai Mall. However there was a video game arcade to reward the kids for slogging through a boring day of sightseeing with us and the swipe cards weren't ridiculously expensive. The kids began to indulge in the usual onscreen homicidal activities while I explored the rest of the arcade. The sight of young women in full hijab ramming each other in bumper cars felt a little incongruous but of course that was just the result of my Western preconceptions meeting reality.

We used the review sites to pick the most promising restaurant for dinner that we could find. As we left the arcade we saw that the food court had opened and was rapidly filling up. It had been completely closed for the daily fast when we had arrived. We took a taxi to the restaurant which was a relatively upscale all-you-can-eat buffet. It proved to be a good choice as we'd worked up a pretty good appetite. The food was good although it was a little hard to figure out any distinguishing features of Omani cuisine. It was mostly generic Middle Eastern dishes with some Indian and North African influences. Reasonably tasty but not particularly memorable.

This meal effectively brought our time in Muscat to an end. The next morning we would be leaving early to drive back to Dubai through the interior of Oman. Even though I had heard mostly positive things about Muscat prior to our visit, it's one of the few capital cities I just can't say I enjoyed. We found it rather sterile and boring, with a souq that was very generic. We did not find any walkable neighborhoods and there isn't much sense of antiquity as one might find in places like Jerusalem or Marrakech. The few sights for tourists were modestly interesting but hardly enough to justify a special flight. We hoped that the following day we would discover better reasons to recommend Oman to our fellow travelers.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:46 Archived in Oman Tagged road_trip family oman muscat family_travel travel_blog mutrah sultan_qaboos_mosque tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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